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Sonoma County leadership splintered as coronavirus emergency presents new challenges

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With her children in bed and the clanging sounds of her husband doing dishes in the background, Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins went live from her Forestville living room on social media. Residents across the county had been ordered to stay home, and she told about 2,600 watchers about the latest developments in the county’s mission to test more people for the coronavirus, especially high-risk groups like health care workers.

Fielding questions in real time from county residents, Hopkins’ videos in front of her fireplace are her way of being with the people she represents, residents of the west county, when she like everyone else is barred from being in close proximity with others — counter to her instincts in an emergency.

“This disaster even more than prior disasters is going to depend on the ability to communicate effectively with the public,” said Hopkins, who has stood apart among local leaders with her detailed and regular updates for constituents about the emerging crisis.

The new coronavirus sweeping the globe has infected at least 54 people in Sonoma County and caused at least one death while upending life in ways that even the county’s historic wildfires did not. It has delivered an immediate, severe economic blow, costing untold thousands their jobs in the county, and cast a pall of uncertainty over the everyday safety of its half million residents, including 70,000 public school students and up to 30,000 college students who are unlikely to return to classrooms until the fall.

That is the fallout so far from an intangible, invisible threat — a virus easily transmitted and the disease it causes, COVID-19, which as of yet has no known cure.

“You can get it from someone by just going out,” warned Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s new public health officer, stressing the need for people to remain at home.

Under her March 17 order and the overriding statewide mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsom just two days later, only those with “essential” business or jobs are allowed to regularly venture out while all wait for the crisis to subside. Newsom said on Tuesday that it could be as long as 12 weeks.

That unsettling message came in one of the many daily public briefings Newsom has stepped forward to give on the spread of the coronavirus in the state and its implications for schools, hospitals, government, business and other key institutions. Newsom’s matter-of-fact, data-laden updates, along with his first-in-the-nation shutdown order, have put him in a group of elected officials, among them New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who are earning distinction for a strong, straight-forward and public-facing approach to leadership amid the emergency.

But in Sonoma County, the crisis appears to lack a public commander in local government. Instead, the emergency has done more to isolate the county’s elected officials and splinter public leadership, more so now than in the unprecedented fires of 2017 and 2019. Then clear authorities emerged, from the ranks of law enforcement and city and county government, giving daily, transparent updates broadcast to the community.

The vacuum has been discernible in public messaging, some residents say, and in the dearth of information coming from private hospitals and health care companies that have muzzled the doctors, nurses and others on the front lines of the crisis.

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“I know leaders in our county have done things, but it’s not been enough,” said Santa Rosa resident Ursula Kremer, a substitute teacher who has been sick for weeks with what she and her doctor suspect is COVID-19. “I don’t feel like anyone has my back.”

Although she visited Sutter Santa Rosa’s testing site on Hoen Avenue, she said a health care worker there apparently decided she was a low priority case and tested her for influenza instead.

“There is no one here saying we’re going to have our eyes open and find out what’s going on here so this doesn’t get out of control,” Kremer said.

County supervisors said they have stepped up to stay connected with people in the districts they represent and are deliberately taking a back seat, letting public health officials and leaders of the main medical providers drive the response.

“We want people to listen to doctors’ orders and not politicians’ orders,” Supervisor James Gore said.

Supervisors are looking to Mase, 53, an infectious disease expert with past stints at the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who only earlier this month stepped into the job as the county’s chief health authority after her predecessor moved to Atlanta for a job with the CDC. Mase’s first day on the job, March 10, came 24 hours before the WHO declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.

Mase said she is leading a multi-pronged response to the disaster, developing new guidance for local doctors, launching surveillance programs to detect the virus among groups like jail inmates, tracking the best research on the virus, ensuring the data collected locally is accurate and analyzed, and advising local governments, community groups and the general public about the scope and purpose of her isolation order.

She’s carved out time every day to talk with people about the importance of keeping physical distance and limiting trips outside the home, appearing on radio programs, at virtual town halls run by the county and other groups and in media interviews.

She’s talking with school officials, law enforcement, fire chiefs and attending conference calls with community groups, like a recent call with local religious leaders — all of that outreach to ensure they “feel informed on the latest situation and response. That’s probably one of the most important things that I do,” Mase said.

She was unmoved, however, by repeated calls this month for greater transparency from the county, urging it to release basic demographic information on the local COVID-19 cases, a step it did not take until Friday. Mase said the public already had all the information it needed to stay safe from reports out of places like China with significantly more data about the great risk coronavirus posed to elderly people and those with underlying health issues.

“We really need people to shelter in place. We’re doing all this stuff to prevent this all-of-a-sudden surge,” Mase said.

Partly in deference to Mase, but also because of the isolating nature of the global health emergency, the county’s elected leaders, have spent far less time in this case at the public forefront.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin, 68, was the first leader to begin isolating at home, two days before the public health officer ordered all residents to do so. Gorin missed the last board meeting open to the public, saying she felt it was more important to signal the need for people like her, age 65 and older, to heed advice from medical experts about home isolation given the greater risks to older people.

“I’m taking care of business, I’m on the phone about 8 hours a day,” Gorin said. “I’m checking in with our legislators, mayors, city managers. Our supervisors in our county are very well prepared for emergencies. We’ve gone through this before.”

But this emergency is unlike the megafires and monster floods that have hit the region in recent years, when local leaders have stepped up day after day to reassure the public, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fire chiefs and state authorities to spell out the dangers and explain their response.

Two sheriffs, Rob Giordano in the 2017 fires and his successor Mark Essick in the Kincade fire, staked out prominent public platforms amid disasters and earned deep public trust in doing so. So, too, with Hopkins during the historic flood that delivered the biggest blow to her west county district in February 2019.

People deserve to get clear information upfront, even during a fast-changing disaster, Giordano said in an interview in 2018, reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the fires.

“If you’re not talking to them, they’re not safe,” Giordano said.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, however, the county’s main public briefings have been limited to the past two Tuesdays, with virtual meetings featuring live video on the county’s website for the general public and broadcast on Spanish-language radio stations.

Gorin, who as chairwoman this year is chiefly responsible for the message coming from the Board of Supervisors and the top of county government, brings nearly a quarter century political experience into the role, including searing experiences in past disasters. She was the only elected official in the county to lose her home in the 2017 fires, and she was mayor of Santa Rosa at the outset of the 2008 global financial meltdown. She jokingly calls herself “the disaster queen.”

But the two-term supervisor, who just won reelection in the county’s eastern 1st District, doesn’t relish or seize the spotlight in such moments.

She’s less savvy about social media than most of her board peers, and has only now sought training to come up to speed, acquiring a tripod for her phone so she can broadcast public messages from home. Her first project was a video urging people to find creative ways to support the county’s tourism, hospitality, wine and food industries.

She sees that leadership as the best way to reach as many different sectors of the county as possible, through tailored messages and by sharing the communications effort with her fellow board members.

“We can’t do this one-on-one with 500,000 people,” Gorin said. “I want to be a calm messenger about the pandemic we’re experiencing.”

But the county has also drawn sharp criticism from residents over the limits it has put on communication, with residents saying officials were wrong to withhold basic information over three weeks about the shape of the widening local outbreak.

From March 2, when the county announced its first local case, to Friday, the county, led in this case by Mase and her boss, Health Services Director Barbie Robinson, declined to share the age, gender or town of residence of any person with a positive coronavirus test. They also would not say where patients were being treated, though Santa Rosa’s three large hospitals are said to all have had cases.

“If we knew where the virus was spreading we could take even more precautions,” Healdsburg resident Batja Cates said in a letter to The Press Democrat decrying the secrecy. “It is chilling to think such information is deliberately being withheld.”

County attorneys offered legal cover under a broad interpretation of the federal law meant to shield patient identities and financial information from disclosure. Individual county supervisors voiced some dismay but balked at wading in as a board.

“It’s critical to be as transparent as we possibly can,” Hopkins said March 3, but “we do have to maintain patient confidentiality.”

Only after the caseload hit 50 on Friday did Mase provide a basic demographic breakdown of local patients. It showed that the disease is hitting nearly all age groups in the county, with more than half of cases found in people age 50 and younger.

Gorin said she was sympathetic to people who wanted demographic information earlier but deferred to the county’s goal of protecting patient privacy. She said that the larger set of data will ultimately make it a more valuable for the public.

“The community has been wanting to know this, and it’s been frustrating not to give people the information,” Gorin said.

The county has also yet to produce a model of its best guess for how hard or when the coronavirus will hit local residents and how many might wind up needing hospital care. That third-party projection could come this week, while reports show that California’s peak caseload could hit in late April, with up to 148 daily deaths by April 24, according to an estimate by the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The public’s attention and adherence to the isolation order will be key to avoiding a worst-case scenario, said Supervisor David Rabbitt.

Each morning, the supervisors receive a briefing led by Christopher Godley, the emergency manager, and County Administrator Sheryl Bratton. The briefing covers the day’s urgent tasks, from seeking alternative sites for additional patient care to getting additional safety equipment and testing supplies from the state.

“My question to Sheryl and Chris every day is: ‘What do you need from me today? What can I do for you?’ It’s not the other way around. There’s a role for everyone,” Rabbitt said.

Gov. Newsom, meanwhile, has been zig zagging the state while giving his daily public briefings. On Friday, he stood in front of the US Navy hospital ship Mercy at the Port of Los Angeles, telling the public that 10,000 COVID-19 tests are now performed each day and explaining in detail the number of ICU beds needed in the state to handle a surge.

On Saturday, Newsom was inside a warehouse in Sunnyvale, where skilled volunteers were refurbishing old ventilators. He served up sober news: The number of patients under intensive care had risen 105% overnight.

“If we make the decision individual by individual to keep ourselves safe and by keeping others at a physical distance — socially connected, physically apart — then we have the capacity to bend that curve,” Newsom said.

In the absence of precise modeling, Mase has said she expects 20 to 40% of the county population may contract the coronavirus by the time the outbreak ends.

County emergency leaders this past week said they are securing space for 500 extra patient beds at alternative sites in the county to free up space in hospitals for more serious patients with COVID-19 should there be a surge that overwhelms capacity.

Those estimates and work to secure sites for the coming case surge is going on in a nearly round-the-clock scramble by health and emergency officials inside county government, mostly by appointed professionals like Mase, Robinson, the health services director, and Godley, the emergency manager.

“It’s not a slash dash effort, to ensure people are receiving the care they need,” Godley said.

But local efforts to prepare for an unknown number of very sick people, and everyone else who needs medical treatment, are hamstrung by the nation’s relatively weak testing program. The outbreak also could be prolonged by other parts of the nation where governments have been slow to ask residents to stay home.

David McCuan, chair of Sonoma State University’s political science department, said leaders must ensure various divisions within local government are communicating with each other and responding to the community’s needs.

“This is more than regional, broader and deeper, unseen and at the same time highly local,” McCuan said. “It’s the locals who are going to solve this problem — it isn’t going to be Washington, D.C. — by prevention and identification.”

Like Hopkins, most of the county’s supervisors have made daily commitments to reach their constituents by social media and email briefings.

They have also claimed portfolios for separate interest groups. Hopkins is reaching out to the agriculture and tourism sectors. Gore is focused on developing strong communication lines with Latino communities. Rabbitt is in regular conversations with key business groups, while Supervisor Shirlee Zane is focused on community wellness, especially for seniors and vulnerable populations.

All supervisors have lamented their inability to do what they would normally do — get out and speak with people directly in their neighborhoods, homes and businesses. The emergence of national leaders like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, may help fill that absence, Rabbitt said.

“This is a national disaster and a national issue,” he said “It’s probably less important that we’re out front when people can watch CNN and see Dr. Fauci, and get information from many sources.”

For many in the region, state Sen. McGuire, a former Sonoma County supervisor, has been a reliable and reassuring presence amid the pandemic. He’s told school officials, families and businesses to prepare for a lengthy isolation period needed to keep people healthy and the hospitals below capacity.

Friday, McGuire went from a blood drive organized by Assemblyman Jim Wood at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds to help compensate for a sharp decline in donations to the campus of Monroe Elementary School in Santa Rosa to talk with the district about its meal program, which fed nearly 6,000 children last week.

“The people we work for deserve the truth, even if it’s bad news, we owe it to folks,” McGuire said. “Especially during a crisis, timely accurate information whether it’s a fire a flood or a global pandemic is absolutely critical.”

Hopkins, the board vice chairwoman, whose three years in office have been marked by repeated natural disasters, recalled the town hall meetings and time spent in neighborhoods after the Russian River floods where she was able to listen to residents and share straight talk in response.

Now, facing even greater unknowns, she instead is in front of her computer, alone in a room all day apart from breaks to be with her three young children.

“At the town hall meetings after the floods I was out meeting people in their ruined businesses, checking on them in their homes, standing in flooded basements and giving people hugs,” Hopkins said. “Now, the lack of community is challenging.”

Gorin said she was confident about the county’s evolving response and fire-tested team that she said is in charge. And she’s determined to let the public know what the county is doing to prepare.

“We can’t sit idly by as this unfolds,” Gorin said. “We’re going to be reaching out to the community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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